Editorial: Flawed men, perhaps, but great deeds

The Detroit News

The danger of erecting monuments to men is that they all stand on clay feet.

Many Americans who have long been admired as geniuses or heroes are now under unforgiving scrutiny for offenses that might disqualify them for public honor. 

Few are passing muster. And no wonder. They were human, after all. And as the Bible tells us, "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God."

There are no perfect men, or women. But there are individuals who have made enormous contributions to the progress of mankind despite committing offenses that by today's standards are irredeemable.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves, but they also conjured a vision of an amazing nation in which individuals are empowered by natural rights and free to decide their own fate. 

George Washington owned slaves, too. But he brought that new nation and its vision to life with his courage, leadership and wisdom. 

The naturalist John Muir, now being disowned by the Sierra Club he fathered, said derogatory things about ethnic minorities and white southerners. But the words he wrote inspired the creation of the National Park system, preserving for the public use of all future Americans some of the most beautiful spaces on earth.

The examples of those being canceled in this new cultural revolution are endless, and are playing out both nationally and locally. 

A statue of revolutionary War hero Gen. Anthony Wayne, who lent his name to Michigan's largest county and one of its most important universities, was cloaked in plastic in its corner of Detroit.

Christopher Columbus, who mistreated indigenous people but who also opened a path to freedom and opportunity that is still being followed today, also was removed from his Motor City pedestal when the current Black Lives Matter protests began.

The City of Detroit removed the bust of Christopher Columbus statue in the median of Randolph Street facing the intersection of Jefferson Avenue in downtown Detroit. Workers removed the statue Monday morning, June 15, 2020. All that remains is the empty pedestal.

At the Detroit Institute of Arts, among the grievances lodged against director Salvador Salot-Pons is that the institution failed to note artist Paul Gauguin was accused of molesting the subject of a painting of a nude young girl the museum displayed. 

And in west Michigan, a sculpture intended to honor the emancipation of slaves is on trial for imagery that some see as demeaning to those former slaves.

Certainly, part of the privilege of being an American is the freedom from the compulsion to give unquestioning solicitude to individuals who are deemed sacred by the state.

But scrubbing the formerly revered from the national narrative distorts history and presents a one-sided view America. 

The debt of gratitude we owe Washington, Jefferson, Madison and others who helped build the greatest republic in history is not diminished by their human failings.

They were men of great accomplishment who also participated in deplorable acts. Their achievements should be acknowledged, taught in proper context, and judged in relation to the times in which they lived.

Perhaps for some their sins are so great they are undeserving of monuments in the public square.

That's the danger of deifying mortals. Few will be able to measure up to the expectations of future generations.